Friday 30 September 2022

A VISIT TO GREEN KNOWE by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

     One of the most gratifying comments I have ever received was when a reviewer wrote that a passage in one of my children's books reminded him of something in the Green Knowe books by Lucy Boston. This was many years ago at a time when I had just written my first children's books and when my children and I were avid readers of the Green Know series.

     Indeed I remember reading one of the stories to them in the car on our way to depositing the eldest at boarding school for the first time. The school was Friend's School Saffron Walden and he, Perry was eleven. It wasn't long before we all realised that in fact the Manor of Hemingford Grey, Green Knowe in the books, wasn't far from the school. As we often took him out on weekend exeats and instead of coming all the way back to Sussex, found local Quakers or b & bs in which to stay, it was quite easy to plan a trip to try to find the house. From the map we were happy to see that a public footpath boarded the riverside which ran along the gardens of the manor.

   It was cold and wintery when we set off on the quest but we were warmly dressed and soon came in sight of the unmistakeable old house. We were peering into the garden when we were hailed by a spare figure in anorak and boots. We realised that this was Lucy Boston herself, who having waved to us, came to the boundary to chat. The children were thrilled and began to tell her how much they loved the books. When I explained about the school and having to get back, she urged us to come again and come in properly...

   I wrote to  thank her and she replied  by return with a photo of 'a little corner of the garden' to tempt us. When I mentioned  her invitation to a fellow writer at the SOA's children's group meeting, she advised us not to go, that meeting writers was invariably disappointing. We were not dissuaded.

     On the arranged day, the children Perry, Justin and Portia were bursting with excitement, as was I. Lucy Boston who was then around 90 at the time, met us on the towpath wearing trousers and an anorak. She had kind brown eyes, a tanned face and, as noticed by Portia, then aged 8, 'very long ears and a laughing voice,'

    She took us into the Hall of the manor and it was unlike any other house I had ever seen. I had read that it was the oldest inhabited house in England and indeed its thick stone walls seemed to breathe the sense of  history out into the air. There were the cherubs and the bird's nests  which on arrival Tolly saw in the first book, The Children of Green Knowe. Then, using Portia to act the part, Lucy Boston demonstrated how Tolly had first seen Linnet, her hand appearing round the door jam as he looked in the mirror. This was a magical moment.

     We then went up the stairs to the Knight's Hall and then farther up to the bedroom where Tolly first slept - and there was the bed, the rocking horse, the toy box - and the view, just as in the book. The children played with the flute, and the birdcage; they were allowed, encouraged even, to touch everything.

    We went back down into Mrs Oldknow's  room and Lucy Boston told Justin to shut his eyes and put Tolly's ebony mouse into his hand. Later, in the sitting room where Ms Oldknow sat when Tolly arrived, we saw the patchwork curtains and the chimney and the mirror which featured in An Enemy of Green Knowe ( our copy of which she inscribed, 'Yours sincerely Melanie D. Powers')

    One of the things the children loved was the number of birds and animals which were tame enough to play with the children, real or 'other' ( Mrs Oldknow did not like the term 'ghosts.')  in the books. They desperately wanted to be able to tame wild animals too but had had little success. Just at that moment a squirrel appeared at the French window, tapped, was admitted and took chocolate from Lucy Boston's  ( I nearly wrote Mrs Oldknow's, hand - so much had fact and fiction blurred.) It was as if we had walked into the books. The children were convinced that this was a truly magic house. Now, many years later none of them has forgotten that moment.

       I did correspond with Lucy Boson for some years after our memorable visit and she was always kind and friendly. I had just published a book about a community wizard and she wrote,' I am glad you  write about wizards because I find that sense is not enough. Life goes beyond it.' She was also welcoming. A while later she wrote, ' visitors are my life because I am too infirm to do anything in the garden but walk  around.' At some stage I wrote saying I should like to include Green Knowe in an article I was preparing, to which she replied,  'of course I should like to appear in 'Houses which are Characters in Fiction. It is a good idea and a good title.'  I did write the piece but shortly afterwards I heard from her daughter-in- law, Diana Boston that she was very ill. She died in 1990 at the age of 97.

     To us though, she will always live on as Mrs Oldknow and be remembered for that magical day.



Ms. Yingling said...

Thank you for sharing this! It made my heart happy. The Green Knowe books survived the last round of weeding in my school library even though they have few readers. What an absolutely wonderful experience. Boston sounds like a lovely lady.

Lynne Benton said...

What a lovely story, Patricia! I visited "Green Knowe" a few years ago, and thought it was a wonderful place - I even bought a model of the little mouse, which always sits beside my computer for inspiration! Sadly it was after Lucy Boston had died, but she sounds a lovely character. And well done you for ignoring that poor advice "never to meet writers because you're bound to be disappointed!" Your amazing visit certainly proved them wrong!

Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed this post, Patricia. Often see the signpost to the village as we drive down the A1M and think about visiting - and then forget till the next time. What a magical visit for you and your children.

Sue Purkiss said...

How wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a magical experience